Younger is not always better when it comes to learning a second language


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Learning a language in a classroom is best for early teenagers.
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Warren Midgley, University of Southern Queensland

It’s often thought that it is better to start learning a second language at a young age. But research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, the best age to start learning a second language can vary significantly, depending on how the language is being learned. The Conversation

The belief that younger children are better language learners is based on the observation that children learn to speak their first language with remarkable skill at a very early age.

Before they can add two small numbers or tie their own shoelaces, most children develop a fluency in their first language that is the envy of adult language learners.

Why younger may not always be better

Two theories from the 1960s continue to have a significant influence on how we explain this phenomenon.

The theory of “universal grammar” proposes that children are born with an instinctive knowledge of the language rules common to all humans. Upon exposure to a specific language, such as English or Arabic, children simply fill in the details around those rules, making the process of learning a language fast and effective.

The other theory, known as the “critical period hypothesis”, posits that at around the age of puberty most of us lose access to the mechanism that made us such effective language learners as children. These theories have been contested, but nevertheless they continue to be influential.

Despite what these theories would suggest, however, research into language learning outcomes demonstrates that younger may not always be better.

In some language learning and teaching contexts, older learners can be more successful than younger children. It all depends on how the language is being learned.

Language immersion environment best for young children

Living, learning and playing in a second language environment on a regular basis is an ideal learning context for young children. Research clearly shows that young children are able to become fluent in more than one language at the same time, provided there is sufficient engagement with rich input in each language. In this context, it is better to start as young as possible.

Learning in classroom best for early teens

Learning in language classes at school is an entirely different context. The normal pattern of these classes is to have one or more hourly lessons per week.

To succeed at learning with such little exposure to rich language input requires meta-cognitive skills that do not usually develop until early adolescence.

For this style of language learning, the later years of primary school is an ideal time to start, to maximise the balance between meta-cognitive skill development and the number of consecutive years of study available before the end of school.

Self-guided learning best for adults

There are, of course, some adults who decide to start to learn a second language on their own. They may buy a study book, sign up for an online course, purchase an app or join face-to-face or virtual conversation classes.

To succeed in this learning context requires a range of skills that are not usually developed until reaching adulthood, including the ability to remain self-motivated. Therefore, self-directed second language learning is more likely to be effective for adults than younger learners.

How we can apply this to education

What does this tell us about when we should start teaching second languages to children? In terms of the development of language proficiency, the message is fairly clear.

If we are able to provide lots of exposure to rich language use, early childhood is better. If the only opportunity for second language learning is through more traditional language classes, then late primary school is likely to be just as good as early childhood.

However, if language learning relies on being self-directed, it is more likely to be successful after the learner has reached adulthood.

Warren Midgley, Associate Professor of Applied Linguistics, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Are some kids really smarter just because they know more words?


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Molly McManus, University of Texas at Austin

Why do rich kids end up doing better than poor kids in school? Of late, one common explanation for this has been the “word gap,” or the idea that poor children are exposed to significantly fewer words by age three than their wealthier peers.

As a former elementary school teacher and now educational psychologist, I understand the appeal of the “word gap” argument. But, focusing on the “word gap” as an explanation for the achievement gap between poor students and wealthier students is both distracting and potentially harmful. Such an explanation could allow educators at all levels to both deny and widen this real gap that exists between the rich and the poor kids.

What is the ‘word gap’?

A study conducted over 30 years ago first came up with findings that showed there was a “word gap” between children from low-income homes and children from economically advantaged ones.

For this study, researchers entered the homes of 42 families over a span of four years to assess daily language exchanges between parents and their young children. The researchers found that, by age three, children with high-income families were exposed to 30 million more words than children with families on welfare.

The study was subsequently critiqued for its flawed research methodology as well as biased assumptions about families of color and families coping with financial crisis.

However, in the last three years the idea of a “word gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged kids has gained extraordinary public exposure.

References to the word gap can now be seen almost weekly in widely circulated publications. Headlines like “Poor Kids and the ‘Word Gap’,” “How do you make a baby smart?,” “Mind the Word Gap,” “The famous ‘word gap’ doesn’t hurt only the young. It affects many educators, too.” and “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” are now quite common.

The attention being paid to ‘word gap’ is harmful.
Jeff Moore, CC BY-NC-ND

From a place of relative obscurity, the study has now become the “evidence-based” foundation for countless initiatives and programs working to improve the academic achievement of poor children.

I agree that the idea is tempting to embrace, especially when it has received support from high-profile organizations like the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small to Fail, The University of Chicago, School of Medicine’s Thirty Million Words® Initiative and even The White House. But the attention being paid to “word gap” is harmful.

Why is the ‘word gap’ harmful?

Students living in poverty currently comprise more than one-half of the public school population. Meanwhile, the test score gap between the most disadvantaged children (those in the bottom 10% of the income distribution) and children from wealthy families (those in the top 10%) has expanded by 30% to 40% over the last three decades.

Unfortunately, the focus on the “word gap” takes teachers and other educators away from thinking about how to address the larger issue of inequality in education. Instead, it focuses attention on what children do not have in terms of an arbitrary word count.

Following the “word gap” logic, teachers often view vocabulary building as the most important aspect of education. However, in reality, there is a wide scope of early learning experiences that all young children, particularly those experiencing poverty, need to develop.

For example, approaches such as project-based learning provide students the opportunity to engage with complex topics and construct their own knowledge in addition to developing vocabulary.

Moreover, when we use the “word gap” to identify poor children as behind before they even begin school, that affects their teachers’ view of what they are capable of doing. It directs attention toward the things that poor families do not have and cannot offer their young children.

Poorer students can be made to feeling less capable because of what they do not know.
River Arts, CC BY-ND

Research shows that teachers of poor students and/or students of color often dwell on the experiences and language that their students are missing and default to teaching practices such as vocabulary drills and rote repetition that emphasize obedience and quiet behavior.

Not only do these types of learning experiences limit students’ opportunities to develop language, they also negatively affect students’ views of themselves as learners. Poor students are made to feel less capable because of what they do not know.

Because of the “word gap” and other widespread assumptions grounded in deficit thinking – the idea that low-income minority students fail in school because they and their families have deficiencies – many teachers are not tapping into the strengths and rich experiences that their students bring to school. Consequently, they deny students the types of learning experiences that allow them to explore, talk and collaborate.

Finally, the “word gap” sends a message to poor parents and parents of color that there is something wrong with their parenting if it is different from the practices of affluent, white parents.

It unfairly takes the onus off of schools and teachers to provide sophisticated learning opportunities in which their students can excel and places the blame for failure squarely on parents’ shoulders.

As a result, poor parents and parents of color are viewed as less capable because of what they do not know, just like their children.

The learning experience gap

Low-income children are more likely than their higher-income peers to be in factory-like classrooms that allow little interaction and physical movement. As a result, these children spend more time sitting, following directions and listening rather than discussing, debating, solving problems and sharing ideas.

Focusing on the “word gap” further perpetuates these problematic learning opportunities and deprives children of the types of learning experiences required to develop a range of sophisticated capabilities.

I believe that most parents, regardless of circumstance, would also agree that it is important to engage in conversation with their young children. However, early conversations and exposure to words will not determine whether a child does well in school. Furthermore, poverty is not an indication that parents are not speaking to their young children.

The academic disparity between young children in poverty and children from wealthier families is not a result of what their parents can offer. It is a result of the different types of learning experiences they are afforded at school.

In other words, it is not the “word gap” but the opportunity gap that is the problem.

The Conversation

Molly McManus, PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Speaking in tongues: the many benefits of bilingualism


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Teresa Parodi, University of Cambridge

We live in a world of great linguistic diversity. More than half of the world’s population grows up with more than one language. There are, on the other hand, language communities that are monolingual, typically some parts of the English-speaking world.

In this case, bilingualism or multilingualism can be seen as an extraordinary situation – a source of admiration and worry at the same time. But there are communities where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm – for example in regions of Africa. A Cameroonian, for example, could speak Limbum and Sari, both indigenous languages, plus Ewondo, a lingua franca, plus English or French, the official languages, plus Camfranglais, a further lingua franca used between anglophone and francophone Cameroonians.

On a smaller scale, we all know families where bilingualism or multilingualism are the norm, because the parents speak different languages or because the family uses a language different from that of the community around them.

How difficult is it for a child to grow up in such an environment? And what are bilingual children capable of? Well, they are capable of quite a lot, even at a very young age. They can understand and produce expressions in more than one language, they know who to address in which language, they are able to switch very fast from one language to the other.

Noses for grammar

Clearly we are talking here of a range of different skills: social, linguistic and cognitive. Social skills are the most known: bilingual children are able to interact with speakers of (at least) two languages and thus have direct access to two different cultures.

But they also have linguistic skills, some very obvious, such as understanding and using words and expressions in different languages. A less obvious aspect is that bilingual children have a raised awareness for how language “works”. For example, bilinguals are better than monolinguals of the same age at pinpointing that the sentence “apples growed on trees” is bad, and “apples grow on noses” is fine, but doesn’t make sense.

Less known are the cognitive skills developed by bilinguals, an issue of great interest for research at the moment, as seen, for example, in work by Ellen Bialystok and colleagues. Probably due to the practice of switching languages, bilinguals are very good at taking different perspectives, dealing with conflicting cues and ignoring irrelevant information. This skill can be applied to domains other than language, making it an added value of bilingualism.

Is it worth it?

What if one of the languages is not a “useful” one because, for example, it does not have many speakers (for example, Cornish)? Is it worth exposing the child to it? The linguistic, social and cognitive advantages mentioned above hold, independently of the specific languages. Any combination of languages has the same effect.

A common worry is that trying to speak two (or more) languages could be too strenuous for the child. But there is no need for concern: learning to speak is more similar to learning to walk than it is to learning a school subject. Learning to speak is genetically programmed. The brain is certainly able to cope with more than one language, as research and experience shows.

Telling you where to get off in two languages.
Rob Crandall/Shutterstock.com

There could be a practical problem, though, in providing enough exposure to the languages. The stress is then on the parents to ensure the opportunity to interact with speakers of the languages in question. Bilingualism is not genetic: having parents who speak different language does not guarantee a bilingual child.

Code-switching is cool

Another frequent worry is that of the child learning two half languages, short of the “proper” version of either of them. One may, for example, hear bilinguals – children and adults – using words or expressions from two or more of the languages in their linguistic repertoire in a single sentence or text, a phenomenon known as code-switching.

Often people assume that the main reason for doing this is a lack of sufficient proficiency in one of the languages, such that the speaker cannot continue in the language they started in. They also often assume that the choice of the words from one language or the other is random. Far from it. Code-switching is common among bilinguals and, contrary to popular belief, it follows grammatical rules.

Research has shown regular patterns in code-switching, influenced by the languages concerned, by community norms and by which language(s) people learn first or use more frequently. Very often, code-switchers are very highly proficient in the languages concerned. Code-switching also follows social rules: bilingual children only use it if they know the interlocutor knows the “other” language.

Additionally, if asked for clarification, they know if they have spoken too quietly or used the wrong language, and only switch in the latter case. Both bilingual children and adults have a range of reasons, including sociolinguistic reasons to code-switch. Code-switching can be cool!

All typically developing children will learn one language. To learn more than one they need the opportunity and the motivation. Growing up with more than one language is an asset well worth the investment.

The Conversation

Teresa Parodi, Lecturer of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Cambridge

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The absurdity of English spelling and why we’re stuck with it


Baden Eunson, Monash University

Ghoti. How would you pronounce that? According to urban legend, it was George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright, who coined the term in his quest for spelling reform. He pronounced it “fish” because of the sounds touGH; wOmen; and naTIOn. It probably wasn’t Shaw, but it does make an interesting point about the absurdities in English spelling. Do we need to fix it? Can we fix it?

English spelling can present problems for writers, even for those who are born into English-speaking cultures. Other languages, such as Italian or Korean, by comparison are quite phonetic (most letters are pronounced, and most letters are pronounced in a consistent way).

There are a number of letters in English that are not pronounced or pronounced differently in certain words. This pattern of irregularity affects about 25% of English words, but within that 25% are about 400 of the most frequently used words.

People who have difficulty spelling might draw little comfort from the fact that, had they lived prior to the 18th century, their “poor” spelling might have gone unnoticed. Until that time, there was considerable flexibility in the way people spelt words.

Shakespeare, for example, spelt his own name in several different ways and did not think this was remarkable. The invention of dictionaries in the 18th century “froze” the language. Thereafter, a line was drawn between “correct” and “incorrect” spelling.

Spelling errors: where do they come from?

There are other causes of spelling error apart from the irregularities of the language itself. People misspell for a variety of reasons. They may not understand the parts of speech or word classes. For example, they might mistake the verb advise for the noun advice.

It could be the result of mispronunciation. If, over a long period of time, enough people say goverment instead of government or vunerable instead of vulnerable, then the words may eventually be spelled that way.

Spelling errors can be the result of typing or writing errors. Typing errors that occur when people are using word processing programs on computers can be partly corrected by computerised spell checkers; but be warned: spell checkers are far from perfect and are not a replacement for the hard grind of improving your spelling. The same goes for predictive text on mobile phones and some keyboards.

Or perhaps the person simply does not understand the correct meaning of a word, and mistakes it for another word.

Eggcorns” are a type of language error, usually based upon a mishearing of the original word, sometimes leading to unintentionally hilarious effects, but which still make sense at some level.

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Eggcorns are close relatives of mondegreens and malapropisms. A mondegreen is a word or word group based upon a mishearing of texts such as poetry or music, so that the Scottish ballad The Bonnie Earl O’Murray’s final lines

They hae slain the Earl Amurray/and laid him on the green

was misheard as

They hae slain the Earl Amurray and Lady Mondegreen.

A malapropism is named after a character — Mrs Malaprop — from the 1775 play The Rivals, by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, where words are comically mispronounced. Thus Mrs Malaprop announces at one point:

If I reprehend [apprehend] any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular [vernacular] tongue, and a nice derangement [arrangement] of epitaphs! [epithets].

Other malapropisms are also used to humorous effect in modern television programs, usually to show — as with the original character — that the person uttering the lines is not terribly bright and thus is an object of ridicule for us, the audience:

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Problems can also arise when different words sound the same. Certain words are confused because of particular similarities, such as:

  • shared elements (syllables, stress patterns) — militate/mitigate
  • transposable or exchangeable elements — calvary/cavalry, accept/except
  • words mistaken for phrases and vice versa — all ready/already
  • semantic proximity — baroque/rococo, nadir/zenith, acid/alkali

Homophones are words that have different spellings and meanings but the same pronunciation, such as:

  • Altar/alter
  • Site/cite/sight
  • Bow/bough
  • Assent/ascent
  • To/two/too
  • Awe/oar/or/ore
  • Right/rite/write/wright
  • Vein/vane/vain
  • Stationery/stationary

Be careful also of contranyms or autoantonyms. These are words that can take at least two, usually opposite, meanings.
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There are many spelling rules – not all of them consistent – but always keep in mind this good old prompt:
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Perfect spelling, vocabulary, usage, grammar, punctuation and style do not necessarily correlate perfectly with intelligence and competence, but most people infer that they do. Perception is reality. One typo is enough to consign a resume to the dustbin.

Spelling reform: the impossible dream?

There have been many attempts throughout the history of the English language to rationalise it, making it more or even totally phonetic. While such reform efforts seem to have common sense on their side, the sheer success of English in becoming a global language, together with the conflict between orthography (spelling) and phonology (pronunciation), make such reforms unlikely.

As American author Bill Bryson points out:

if we decide to standardise the spelling of words, whose pronunciation shall we use?

When looked at globally, most of our spellings cater to a wide variation of pronunciations. If we insisted on strictly phonetic renderings, girl would be gurl in most of America (though perhaps goil in New York), gel in London, gull in Ireland, gill in South Africa, garull in Scotland. Written communications between nations, and even parts of nations, would become practically impossible.

Thus, we are probably stuck with the inanities of four/fourteen/forty and debt and island (with the b and s inserted by 17th-century scholars who were trying to copy what they imagined to be more prestigious Latin spellings).

Unfortunately, there is no other way of learning English spelling than by reading as widely as possible (and even then, by not trusting everything you read). Use, but do not depend upon, software spell checkers that simply use a dumb algorithm that looks at its own dictionary and then tells you if the word exists, not if it is the right word. Spell checkers, at their current stage of development, cannot read context — only you can do that.

The Conversation

Baden Eunson is Adjunct Lecturer, School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics at Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.